The domain is part of a widespread heathland, and artillery exercises are common. A fire is also not unusual as a result of the heath being ignited by firing, but in most cases the damage is limited.
However what happened on Friday, and is going on still according to the mayor of Brecht, will have long-term consequences, and all for the lack of experienced mechanics.
In normal circumstances, there would be a military fire engine present on the firing range to cope with anything serious enough that a bucket of sand could not deal with it. Fire pickets – soldiers posted to deal with fires immediately should one break out – are a routine part of any exercise.
But the Brecht fire engine was not present on Friday. It was gone for repairs, which had to be done out of house because the mechanics who were trained to maintain the engine have left the army.
The problem is an illustration of an issue facing the armed forces at all levels: experienced and highly-trained troops are leaving as their time comes, only to be replaced by young and inexperienced recruits. And it is difficult to train them up to the standard required if the only people able to carry out the training have retired.
Officially, the army is now saying the fire engine was not expected to be needed, as the exercise concerned only small-calibre arms.
“And there is never a fire engine available for exercises with that kind of calibre,” Lieutenant-General Marc Thys told VRT News. “It is only present during exercises where we are firing with a large calibre, or if firing with explosive content.”
During yesterday’s exercise, only copper bullets with a lead filling were fired. “Those contain no combustible elements,” he said. And yet a fire broke out all the same.
Another problem was firefighting helicopters. For the emergency, the army called on the help of the Dutch armed forces, who supplied the necessary assistance.
“We also have helicopters, and in 2015 we bought fire extinguishing bags, but they turned out not to work on our helicopters,” explained Jens Franssen, the VRT’s defence correspondent. “Ultimately, the helicopters turned out to be too expensive to use and are now on the ground. As a result, they have no capacity to extinguish fires for themselves.”
In the meantime, the nature area of which the range is a part, which extends over 1,600 hectares, has now suffered damage over 700-800ha, and the fire is still burning. Smoke and smell extended as far as Antwerp itself, while residents of the immediate area were evacuated.